butterfly prophecies (archived post)

by benjamin hollon on march 11, 2021

Back in November, I was experimenting with embedded narrative in a novel I was drafting. I mostly did it to fill up some space when I wasn’t sure where I wanted the story to go, but I ended up with some insights I found fascinating.

The story was a legend of the alien race the story focused on, and it dealt with prophecies. I’ll tweak any quotes I use here, though, to make sure you can grasp it without much context in the overarching novel.

The story’s a pretty standard framework. The main character is a prince, the son of an evil King. The prince is good and loved by the people, but they hate his father. The father knows this and keeps the prince hidden in the palace.

Of course, the prince doesn’t like this and escapes from the palace for a day to explore. He meets an old woman and helps her with her work. In an archetypal fairy-tale way, the old woman offers to tell him the answer to one question about the future as a thank you.

At the same time, she warns him about accepting the offer, saying that learning the future is often dangerous and that once she tells his future, he cannot change it.

Of course, he makes the stupid decision and asks whether his father will be overthrown. As you’ve probably guessed, the woman foretells that the prince will be the one to kill his own father.

From that point on, the plot spirals downward in an Oedipus-esque way. I don’t think I need to bore you with it; in the end, he does kill his father. The story goes on, but not in a relevant way to this article.

So, why am I bringing this story up? Well, it’s got a pretty standard structure with some well-established archetypes, but when I wrote it down, a few insights came out that I don’t see nearly as often in similar stories. For example, here’s the conversation between the prince and the woman:

“You can see the future?” the prince asked with interest. “That must be a useful skill.”

“My lord, you are wrong; it is the greatest curse one can fall under. Do not let yourself be deceived by those who say otherwise.”

She then explains:

“Knowledge of the future seals it. […] Until you know the future, it is nebulous. Anything can happen. Yes, there is uncertainty, but that uncertainty is what fosters bravery and wisdom. But once you know your future, it is set. Nothing can change the course set before you. The very act of telling your future will seal it. And do not think that your fate will be the same either way; one who does not know his future always makes different decisions. So choose carefully; you find yourself trapped with a fate that you do not wish.”

This concept is what I feel many people don’t realize: the very act of having your fortune told changes what your fortune is. If the oracle had not foretold Oedipus, his father would not have abandoned him and Oedipus would have likely recognized his parents.

Or so we think. We like to pretend we know what “would have happened” in different circumstances:

Grief overcame the prince and his eyes welled with tears. “Would—” He stopped. Then he began again: “If I had not asked, would I still kill him?”

The woman stared at him disdainfully. “My lord,” she said, “no one is ever told what would have been.”

There is no “would have” in situations like this. If the prince didn’t have his fortune told, would his future be different? Yes. But would he still kill his father? It’s thoroughly possible that he would kill him either way. There’s no way to know.

I wrote about this some in my article on fragility:

A similar phrase that we rarely hear anymore is “God willing.” Now there’s a phrase that speaks of the fragility of life. It reminds us that life is an uncertain thing; there are no guarantees. I believe this to be an essential reminder, but one that we often go without. Especially at times like this, when borders are closed because of a global virus and no one knows what tomorrow will bring, we need to be reminded that life is fragile. And really, it’s no more fragile now than it usually is. A chance interaction or remark overheard can completely upset all of your plans on any day, virus-free or not. The difference with the virus is that it’s so widespread and so different from everything we’ve known before.

If there’s anything we can know for certain, it’s that nothing is certain. I’ve been talking about prophecies, but how do we even know what prophecies to trust (if we believe that they exist at all)?

And the truth is that we can’t know for sure. But there’s a common type of prophecy: self-fulfilling.

Self-fulfilling prophecies are predictions that come true because the prediction was made. The existence of the prophecy is the key factor that caused the result.

But when I think about it long enough, I realize that any prophecy that comes true must be a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the woman in my story said, the telling of the future seals it. The fortunetelling is like the butterfly that flaps its wings and creates hurricanes. A small change like the learning of what will happen changes everything so much that the result is nearly always totally different from what would have occurred.

So, how can we apply all this? Well, we can start by choosing which “prophecies” we want to believe. In our case these might be mission statements, personal goals, or projected results. If we take something we want to come true and start believing it will and working toward it, we will help create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Belief is a key factor in success.

Even if your “prophecy” doesn’t come true, that doesn’t mean that it was wrong. Sometimes people need to hear one prophecy so they can carry out another.

Spoiler for The Matrix

In The Matrix, for example, the Oracle tells Neo that he is not the One, despite what everyone else has been telling him. He does turn out to be the One, despite what she said.

I don’t remember the exact details, but I believe she said that she told him he wasn’t the One because, counterintuitively, it was what he needed to hear to be able to become the One.

It’s a fascinating example of hearing one thing and that thing enabling you to do something completely different. I really respect the creators of the movie for this decision; most people who include prophecies can’t help but make them come true, however unlikely it is. This shows that a prophecy doesn’t need to come true to help the story along.

So, long story short, what have we learned?

I don’t know if you found something to take away out of all that mess; I was mostly thinking my way around a topic that’s fascinated me. If it was interesting, let me know, I’m always happy to have feedback!

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